Monday, March 30, 2015

album review: 'strangers to ourselves' by modest mouse

It's the dream story of any indie rock band - well, at least the first half of it is. You start out with a ramshackle, rough-edged sound that catches the ear thanks to solid melodic interplay and distinctive vocals, that's just enough to entice people to read your lyrics. And while they might be a little disjointed and indulgent on that first album, your second release cleans things up significantly, refines the storytelling, and ends up creating a critically acclaimed gem, one that actually manages to snag the appeal of a major label. And your fans tense immediately - would you lose your sound in favour of something that was popular? Would you sell out?

But somehow against all odds, you use the major label influence and budget to only further refine your sound and improve the mix, and your newest release is even more critically acclaimed. There are a fair number of fans who prefer your sophomore release, but they can at least respect the cohesion and added polish that comes with time and more ambition. And then somehow on your next album from said major label, a single somehow catches fire not just on rock radio but everywhere. Suddenly, you're not just critically acclaimed, but you have an earworm of a hit and dropping an album that goes platinum, something you never would have expected.

That was the story of Modest Mouse, and it seemed like for four albums since their debut in the mid-90s they could do no wrong... and then something happened. Their 2007 follow-up, We Were Dead Before The Ship Sank, to their 2004 major break-out wasn't bad, taking a loose nautical theme for their typical brand of manic depression and confusion. And sure, it was decent, but I don't know if it was the much cleaner production, slightly more commercial focus, or songwriting that just felt a few shades less sharp than their best, but it didn't click with me as well. To me, some of that trademark raw, fluid power had been eased back, even with the added talents of The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr. And the thing is that it wasn't bad music, it just didn't seem to have that same spark.

Well, from that, Modest Mouse seemed to drop off the face of the earth, with only an extended EP in 2009 to mark any sort of progress. But now, eight years later, we have a new Modest Mouse album and I'm finally getting a chance to cover it. Yeah, I know I'm a little late to the punch here, but going through that entire discography in depth took a long time. So does Strangers To Ourselves hold up to their best?

Honestly, I'm conflicted about this one. I'm not going to say it's bad - in terms of composition, there's more going on that I like in comparison with their last record - but it's also a stiffer, slightly more predictable album that revisits a lot of themes Modest Mouse has already trodden well in the past and doesn't really add much to their usual blend of existential confusion and depression. Coupled with the layers of sarcasm and even less subtlety than usual, it's the sort of record that I end up appreciating a fair bit more than I actually like.

So before I get to the subject matter of this album, let's talk about the instrumentation and production, where I'll probably have the most positive things to say about this album. Continuing in the tradition of their last album, the production is still fairly polished, with cleaner textures and continuing the tradition of more baroque instrumentation in terms of horns and strings, but with some glitchier electronic effects, like the filmy static on the title track. Which would have been a nice touch if the sound remotely fit the rest of the mix, but really, they only serve to make the record sound a lot more rigid than it should. And the alarming thing is that it keeps happening - the scratchy fuzz across most of 'Shit In Your Cut', the warped hissing glitches of 'Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)', the stuttered, half-formed beat of 'Wicked Campaign', the dreary, flat-feeling tone of 'Be Brave', and generally the whole washed-out tone of the guitars on this album. In comparison with most modern indie rock, it's not overloaded with reverb so much as the tones don't have the same texture or flow as earlier albums- and like most indie rock, the percussion does feel like it's gotten more prominence over the melody on some songs. Thankfully, that's not consistently the case: there's still a pretty potent reggae bounce to 'Lampshades On Fire' that overcomes the washed out tone; the solid grooves of 'The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box' and the noisier, nastier 'The Tortoise And The Tourist' hold a fair amount of interest, and 'The Best Room' and 'Sugar Boats' recapture a fragment of the explosive, theatrical bombast that Modest Mouse plays well, even if it can quickly become exhausting. Hell, my favorite track on this album is the midtempo 'Ansel', if only because it's got a pretty damn great rollicking melody and guitars and drums that got a little rougher.

Granted, so much of Modest Mouse's appeal comes in Isaac Brock's vocals... And where we run into my first issue. I'm not sure if his disinterested tone on some of these songs is intentional- we'll get to why that might be the case in a minute- but his performance is mixed here, especially right out of the gate on the incredibly flat title track. Sure, you get wild moments like on 'Pistol' or 'Sugar Boats', but it's often exaggerated to the point of cartoonish proportions and almost feels like a pose. What I get more of is a confrontational tone- not so much outright but sourness, almost reminding me of the Arctic Monkeys but with slightly better framing.

And with that, we need to get to the meat of this album: lyrics and themes. Now let me stress that Isaac Brock is a damn good songwriter in terms of fusing his distinctive brand of poetry with the off-kilter melodies, and it definitely helps that he always paints himself as part of the story, not above it. And you need to do that for a record like this, which thematically explores humanity's odd and often terrifying ability to disassociate doing bad things from affecting them, whether it be from ignorance, stupidity, or outright malice. And Brock wastes no time pointing it out with a much harsher environmentalist streak than Nightwish brought to the table: people are petty, destructive, deceitful, and generally have treated the planet like shit, and eventually our own consumptive nature will destroy us. And for the most part, he's not exactly wrong here, and he doesn't hesitate to include himself as being just as part of the problem as you or me. Now the overarching question of this album is why we do this, what's our motivation, and whether we're even doing this consciously - and we get an answer on the final track that might as well be summed up in the title: 'Of Course We Know'.

Now here's the thing: Isaac Brock always includes himself in the framing, and it's set up early on that there is dishonesty in what he might say like on 'Pups To Dust' or 'Wicked Campaign', and given the overarching themes of dissociation, you could make the argument that he's lashing out at the world instead of confronting his own issues and depression - hell, the one moment we see him do this on 'Ansel', it's almost clinical as he discusses his brother's death. But I don't buy this for two main reasons: first, when you have a dishonest narrator, it inevitably undercuts the overall message, and there's a strong message on this album's themes. Which leads to the second point: there's little-to-no humor on this album, it's all played straight. So what we're left with instead is a record where the view of humanity is that while we lie and delude ourselves otherwise, we're consciously destroying the world and on some level we know it and we just don't care unless we're being confronted about it - it's pointless, aimless nihilism. And sure, there are inevitably people to which this description applies, but a blanket statement that humanity doesn't care at all is hard to support, and I don't think this album does a good job of it simply because it raises more likely options. Ignorance, negligence, stupidity, despondency, a lack of time or energy or a belief that they can make a change - most of these are referenced on this album, and yet not having being able to care is being equated with intentionally not caring. It does suck that the result might be the same, but intent does matter. And getting away from philosophy for a second, a larger problem is that if your entire album has nihilist themes and it doesn't sound attractive to the audience, it can start repeating itself or getting dull as hell, especially when so much of it on this album intentionally lacks direction and ultimately feels a little shallow. 

As I said, I'm conflicted about this record, mostly because the music is mostly agreeable - until the second you start really digging into the lyrics. And maybe I've been spoiled by records like The Lonesome Crowded West and Good News For People Who Love Bad News, but Modest Mouse used to be more poignant and powerful than this. It might be the lack of greater detail and flair in the writing, it might be the nihilist themes, it might be the stiffer, less-interesting delivery and instrumentation, but the more I listen to this record, the more frustrated I become. And yet I can't say it's bad because in terms of melodic composition Modest Mouse are still talented and there are many tracks that are very listenable. So for me, it's a light 6/10 and a recommendation, but Modest Mouse has done a lot better than this, and that's the real disappointment.

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